National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, December 1, 2006
The National Library of Medicine, a part of the National Institutes of Health, announced today the release of an extensive selection from the papers of molecular biologist and science administrator, Harold Varmus, on its Profiles in Science website.
The Library has collaborated with the University of California, San Francisco Archives and Special Collections to digitize his papers and make them widely available. This brings to 20 the number of notable scientists who have personal and professional records included in Profiles.
With his long time collaborator, J. Michael Bishop, Varmus developed a new theory of the origin of cancer, which holds that the disease is not inflicted by external agents, such as environmental carcinogens, but arises from mutations in certain of our own genes.
"Varmus and Bishop's discovery gave a brilliant new insight into the genetic basis of cancer, of cell growth and differentiation, and of evolution," says Donald A.B. Lindberg, M.D., Director of the National Library of Medicine.
The two scientists found that genes in cancer-causing retroviruses are closely related to genes in normal, non-cancerous cells of many different organisms. These normal cellular genes have been preserved over one billion years of evolution and play a key role in controlling cell division and differentiation. Yet, under particular conditions -- for example, events during cell division or the rearrangement of chromosomes, as well as external influences like viruses, cigarette smoke, and radiation -- they can accumulate mutations that prompt the cell to divide indefinitely, the hallmark of cancer.
The surprising discovery that cancer-causing genes, or oncogenes, are versions of normal cellular genes suggests a common molecular mechanism for the many different types of cancer. It also explains why cancer is most often a disease of old age and accounts for individual differences in the response to carcinogens.
In 1989, Varmus and Bishop shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine "for their discovery of the cellular origin of retroviral oncogenes."
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